A woman’s touch: Celebrating the women of agriculture’s history

We’ve heard about the incredible acts of heroism, unfathomable bloodshed and sacrifice of soldiers during World War I, but there was another battle being fought simultaneously that is often overlooked. Firearms were not issued and draftees came home safe to their families, but it was a war of life and death all the same.

While many men were drafted to fight in the armed forces, women were tasked with keeping American agriculture alive while United States soldiers were valiantly fighting for freedom abroad. According to the Smithsonian, from 1917 to 1919, the Woman’s Land Army of America recruited 20,000 women from urban areas to work on farms that were left unattended by soldiers called to fight.

The women—known as farmerettes—were mostly unfamiliar with driving a tractor, feeding livestock or harvesting crops, but they picked up the slack and became valuable farm laborers who were paid equal wages to male farm workers—an unheard-of notion at the time. T

he women selected for the WLA were drafted similarly to men going to war. The women were volunteers and were chosen based on their work ethic, health and physical abilities. The WLA was funded by nonprofits and universities and many of the farmerettes also held additional jobs, such as teaching and secretarial positions that would allow them time off to harvest crops in the summer.

These women were not seen as heroes at the time. With so many examples of heroism to laud during the war, the WLA has been forgotten in the history books. These women deserve for their story to be told and for other women like them to know whose footsteps they are following today.

Extraordinary women of agriculture’s past

Although the WLA was a collaborative response to a wartime crisis, there were also numerous examples of individual women making great strides in agriculture not due to their gender, but because of the momentous breakthroughs they made in the farming industry, which changed the landscape of production agriculture.

These women were not just anomalies of the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were the catalysts that ushered women into positions of power and leadership in an otherwise male-dominated industry. Their courage to pursue their ideas to improve agriculture, at a time when women were chastised for the simple act of wear pants instead of skirts, is worthy of commending.

One of these trailblazers was Anna Baldwin, who lived from 1857 to 1963. She was a dairy farmer from New Jersey who was issued five patents for inventions to improve dairy production. Her most famous invention was the Hygienic Glove Milker—the first milking machine, which was patented in 1879. The suction machine was a rubber pump that attached to all four teats at once and used a pump lever to draw milk into a bucket. Baldwin’s invention paved the way for other inventors to improve upon her concept and develop the milking machines used today in many dairies.

Another extraordinary woman was Mary Engle Pennington, also known as the “Ice Woman of the Cold Chain.” She joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1905 and became chief of its food research lab in 1908. Pennington, who lived from 1872 to 1952, spent more than 40 years developing innovative food safety techniques to improve processing, storage and shipping of dairy products, poultry, eggs and fish.

She received her nickname because she developed methods to preserve and transport food at lower temperatures than refrigerators and freezers were capable of at the time. Her discoveries reduced bacteria counts in food and developed stronger food safety standards that we still use today.

Harriet Williams Russell Strong lived up to her last name as she made her fortune with her ingenuity, resiliency and courage to take risks. A farmer’s wife in California, Strong was widowed in 1883 when her husband committed suicide. She was left to support four daughters after his death, with only the family’s struggling 220-acre farm as a means of income. Strong knew the farm could be successful with some innovation on her part, so irrigation became her primary focus.

She became the primary inventor of dryland irrigation and developed many water conservation techniques still used today. In fact, Strong patented five inventions and became an expert in water control and irrigation. Her water advancements made the Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal possible. She was later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

In addition to her irrigation contributions, Strong was brave enough to plant walnuts trees on her farm, rather than the wheat, rye and barley that had been grown in the past without success. She started out with 150 acres of walnuts, a risky decision, but one that paid off tenfold. In less than five years, she was the leading commercial walnut producer in the U.S. Her success earned her the nickname “Walnut Queen.” She died in 1926 at the age of 82.

“I had the courage of ignorance and plenty of determination to back it up,” Strong once said.

Another woman with extraordinary accomplishments in agriculture was Barbara McClintock. McClintock is remembered in history books as one of America’s more proficient cytogeneticists. She attended Cornell University in 1919 and received her doctorate in botany in 1927.

For more than 40 years, McClintock studied genetic mutations in corn and maize. Her years of research led to her first scientific journal report in 1950, which detailed her findings that genetic information could swap from one chromosome to another. Her claims were not accepted for more than 20 years until scientists finally acknowledged that her conclusions had been correct.

Her research was not only significant for plant breeding advancement, it was also groundbreaking for human medicine too. McClintock’s discovery of “jumping genes” allowed scientists to understand how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and even how cancer cells can invade healthy cells. In 1983 she was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine—the first unshared Nobel Prize in medicine ever awarded to a woman. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and died at the age of 90 years old in 1992.

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Women in present day are carrying on a legacy

According to the USDA, there are 1.2 million female producers in agriculture today, and the 2012 census of agriculture reported that 56% of farms had at least one female producer and female-operated farms made up 38% of U.S. ag sales and 43% of U.S. farmland. These statistics show the progression of women in agriculture through the years and the impact the visionary women of agriculture had on the last 100 years of the farming industry.

“Women have always played pretty important roles on farms,” said Karolyn Zurn, president of the American Agri-Women organization. “But the thing that has changed the most is the acceptance of the role of women. Sometimes I envy the farm women of today because it is not as scrutinized as it once was.”

Zurn married into agriculture when she became a Minnesota farm wife decades ago. Although many, including her mother-in-law, felt farm wives should be limited to tasks around the home, like feeding chickens and preparing meals for the farm hands, Zurn felt a pull to take on a more significant role in her family’s farm.

“My role changed over time as I learned to drive the grain trucks, do field tillage and combine corn, soybeans and wheat,” she explained. “I also helped with sugar beet harvest. Some of my favorite memories are of my sons and I taking turns combining and chiseling the fields according to their school hours. However, I remember hearing negative comments from neighbors who weren’t so sure that ‘my place’ was working on equipment and doing so many things on the farm with my kids. But I always felt that my role was to help equally with our farming operation. I also believe that it’s possible to take care of your children while working on the farm.”

As her children grew up, Zurn started to take more active roles in politics and agricultural organizations that educate legislators and consumers about agriculture, which is how she became involved with AAW.

“I love politics and AAW affords me the pleasure of working with my elected officials,” she said. “It also gives me the education and resources to help write white papers on proposed bills and the courage to discuss them with my legislators.”

Zurn said one of the most influential women in agriculture that inspires her is Sister Thomas More Bertels, a nun, author, professor and champion of male and female farmers. She was a co-founder of Wisconsin Women for Agriculture and was often referred to as agriculture’s hell-raising nun—quite the colorful description for a lady who wore black and white on a daily basis.

“She understood what we needed to do, as farmers and ranchers, to be influential in positively affecting ag policy,” Zurn explained. “I encourage everyone to read her book, In Pursuit of Agri-Power: The One Thing North American Farmers and Ranchers Can’t Produce. Sister Bertels researched policy-making processes in agriculture to complete her doctorate degree. In 1965, she began lecturing on the subject and addressed farm and ranch groups in 45 states and eight Canadian provinces. She was witty and extremely intelligent.

“There is much to learn from history, with so many important lessons woven throughout,” Zurn said. “Trailblazers—like the farmerettes, are relevant today as they showcase the true character of women in agriculture that still holds true today … full of grit and determination.”

As for the future of women in agriculture, Zurn is certain the farmerettes and even Sister Bertels would approve of the next generation of female agriculturists around the corner.

“I think women will continue to take on more leadership roles in agriculture,” Zurn said. “We see it as more and more women fill positions on boards for agriculture groups. Women are as capable of holding leadership positions as their male counterparts. There’s never been a better time to be a woman who wants to be involved in agriculture.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].